By Melik Kaylan
July 14, 2012
Extremist imams and jihadists infiltrate peaceful Muslim lands, uprooting religious customs that have existed for centuries.
The recent spate of attacks on Muslim historic and religious sites in the ancient city of Timbuktu calls to mind the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan over a decade ago. The Taliban, of course, were obliterating the icons of a rival religion, as they saw it. The Salafist militias that have lately overrun Timbuktu and Mali are obliterating a rival tradition within their own faith.
Their actions more closely resemble intra-Islamic frictions at the end of the Yugoslav conflict in the mid-1990s that were largely overlooked by the news media. In exchange for rebuilding their war-damaged religious sites, Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims first had to acquiesce to the destruction of headstones in their ancestral cemeteries and old decorative motifs on mosque walls. This was required by their benefactors, the Mideast-based Muslim fundamentalist sources of international funds.
Such incidents have now become a global phenomenon. In effect, primitive iconoclastic strains of tribal Islam have burst out of their historical isolation on the margins of civilization and coalesced globally to attack the more cosmopolitan, syncretistic and culturally advanced centers of their faith.
To Western minds, Mali denotes the most marginal of places in the African desert. But it is home to African Islam. The city of Timbuktu, located on a timeless crossroads of trade, developed as a marketplace of ideas for centuries, open to learning from afar and reverential to saintly scholars who came on pilgrimage and stayed. Their manuscripts are housed in Timbuktu's ancient celebrated desert libraries. Their mosques and shrines are what the al Qaeda-related militia Ansar al Dine are busy trying to destroy.
Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo had prospered under the Ottoman dispensation of tolerance among faiths, trade with the West, and aesthetic heterogeneity. Their ancestors' tombstones often featured pictorial bas-reliefs and carved turbans in shapes that denoted professional ranks. Their communities also built shrines to their saints.
None of this was acceptable to Wahhabist Puritanism—a form of fundamentalist Islam which originated in Saudi Arabia—or al Qaeda and allied zealots of revolutionary, internationalist Islam. In recent decades they have assailed the localized variegations of Islam everywhere.
This is the new power topography of the Muslim geosphere. Oil money has funded extremist madrasas, or religious schools, to propagate stripped-down, one-size-fits all ideology precisely suited for pollination across impoverished regions such as Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Pakistani-Afghan border and the like. With money and threats, this international extremist franchise has targeted peaceful Muslim lands where the faith had blended with local customs or become more cosmopolitan through contact with other cultures. Places, in other words, where Islam had lost its aggression and exclusivity.
Today, radicalized imams from the outside infiltrate such places and rebuke the natives for their superstitions and weakness, their relaxed and idolatrous ways. Few can resist the corruption of money and guns legitimized by a virulent Quranic rhetoric, however pious they may be.
Some of the oldest communities in Islam, loosely categorized as Sufi for their mystical bent and ecstatic rituals often involving dance and music, have come under attack. In Pakistan, last year 41 Sufis were killed at a festival in Punjab province. Nothing provokes Salafists more than a festival. In post revolution Libya and Egypt, Sufi mosques, cemeteries and schools have been assaulted.
According to the Islamists, the Sufis, along with other Muslim sects such as the Ismailis and the Ahmadis—not to mention artists, women without veils and the like—have allowed impure outside influences to alloy their faith. They have lost their Islamic authenticity.
In the radical worldview, violence furnishes the litmus test: All authentic Muslims are jihadists, or holy warriors. The addition of anti-imperialism to the religious ideological mix happened under the Afghan resistance to the Russian occupation. Anti-imperialism has become so central to radical Islam's message and appeal that these days any fellow Muslim daring to demur gets branded a foreign agent.
Yet the real imperialists, the outsiders bent on conquest and control, are the radicals themselves. What Timbuktu and other ancient Muslim locales and cultures face is precisely an alien colonial and imperial force—a species of Islam that evolved organically in only one region of the world and now seeks to impose its dominion universally.
That is why national identities and indigenous cultural traditions pose such a threat to international jihad. Local Islam has a living memory tied to geography and ritual, to historical moments when culture was enriched through songs or buildings or to even paintings that commemorate a particular phase.
Jihadists have no memory except for the Quranic era. They have no intervening identity or nostalgia. What we take for granted, the era of Mozart or Shakespeare or Big Band music, photographs of our grandparents beside a 1950s automobile—such things don't exist for jihadists and represent dangerous, idolatrous deviancy. So too with Muslim societies with history and traditions of their own.
There is a countering strategy, if only we in the West would take up the cause. We have abetted the liberation of political life, freedom of religion and freeing of markets where we can in the Middle East. We have neglected culture.
It's time for the other shoe to drop. We must encourage Muslim countries—with funds and ideas for museums, mass media, education and entertainment—to celebrate their national cultures at their historical peaks. If we help them inculcate their citizens with a pride in their specific regional identity, this pride will act as a shield if the jihadists come to erase it all.
Melik Kaylan is a writer based in New York, writes frequently about culture in the Journal.
A version of this article appeared July 14, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Radical Islamists Wage Muslim Civil War in Africa.